Monday, May 24, 2010

Merrill Gilfillan, from The Seasons

"But this is where I place it, the earliest determination to write poems: a nearly wordless feeling of potential convening, glimpses of the two axials of language interbraiding: the horizontal (the simple recounting, that redemption and testimony within the meditative matrix and course of the mothertongue) and the vertical (the cut of the words in formation above the head where words were not seconds before, the songspur and sonics in the wings of meaning."

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Thick as a Brick


Reading one of the thorniest and most interesting exchanges in Firestone and Lomax's Letters to Poets: Conversations about Poetics, Politics, and Community, between Judith Goldman and Leslie Scalapino. (A modified excerpt from the correspondence is available here.) It kicks off with a 2004 letter from Scalapino in which she tries to explain her own poetic practice and how it relates to a subject which has not lost any urgency since that long-ago election year: "the relation of writing to events." That deceptively simple phrase encapsulates the question/declaration perennially phrased as "Poetry makes nothing happen" (Auden) / "No one listens to poetry" (Spicer) / "Can poetry matter?" (Dana Gioia, et al) and two more recent responses to the same anxiety: Stephen Burt's gently deprecating "Art vs. Laundry" and Alan Davies' fiery "The Dea(r)th of Poetry" (it doesn't surprise me to learn that Davies' father was a preacher). I also have in mind my colleague Bob Archambeau's recent
posts on the Cambridge Poets and the exaggerated claims sometimes made for the political efficacy of their work. Elsewhere this anxiety gets expressed in vitriol directed toward MFA programs / Internet culture / youth. But the Goldman/Scalapino dialogue suggests an alternative to codgerish despair on the one hand and triumphant insularism on the other.

In the course of their correspondence, Goldman and Scalapino touch on the infamous remarks on "the reality-based community" that Ron Suskind elicited from an anonymous high official in the second Bush administration, worth requoting here:

The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

I still get a chill from the barefaced arrogance that radiates from what Goldman calls "the (psychotic) state of self-grounding, unpuncturable, unrevisable self-confidence in Bush's cohort." It's pungent evidence, if more evidence were needed, of the ethical bankruptcy of postmodernism in its purest forms, akin to the news about the Israeli army's incorporation of the theory of Deleuze and Guattari into their urban warfare strategies.* But the response to this is not, cannot be any sort of return to first principles, enlightenment-vintage or otherwise. There is no democratic instrument for the imposition of values; only individuals can be motivated to recall themselves to thinking, and only individuals can choose to enter the bonds of solidarity that can bring about change.

The preoccupation of writers and intellectuals is or ought to be that function that writing is better equipped to perform than any other art form: to recall readers to the act of thinking. Scalapino makes that point in her first letter to Goldman. She first draws a distinction between what she sees herself as doing and what "the poets near to me" (aka the Language poets) were doing: trying "to consider relation of 'being' to history.' On the one hand, events one does (and events in the world) are not the being (are not one). On the other hand, 'to fall out' of these events in the world… is not to be at all, not to have ever been."

"Being," then, stands in history without being of it, yet to step out of that history—to take the observer's position—is to not be at all (one's being may be at its most ideological when one does not act). That's the moment in which poetry becomes the poetry that makes nothing happen: the poet observes, stands outside, and describes:

Descriptive language is an example of "falling out of" (or never having been in, always separate from) one's own motions described there. Such as: to describe events or to reference ideas already in place or to discuss other people's ideas, rather than one's writing being the act of thinking, an action that would also be an invention occurring there. Sometimes poets (I noticed this in the 80s) would reject even writing a thought process (at all), taking this for descriptive rather than the act of thinking.

This is an incisive critique of what Charles Altieri calls "the scenic mode" in American poetry: a poetry that describes the world, however elegantly or with whatever degree of rueful poignancy, does not bring any pressure of thought on the world; it is not "an invention occurring there." For Scalapino this "invention" takes place on the level of syntax, a form of movement different from yet related to—in a non-representational way—the movement of bodies, which is the ground of action and history. "I wanted the writing to be that gap: the writing being life, real-time minute motions (physical movements or events) but being or are these (minute motions) as syntax (not representation of the events)." She defines her poetic syntax alternately as "a sound-shape which is… creating alternate interpretations" and as "memory trace or conceptual shape."

The strangeness of Scalapino's syntax (a brief example) keeps pushing the reader away from representation or narrative and into the multifoliate gap between writing/being/representation/history, a gap which under ideal circumstances we are led to think our way into and through and out of. But here is where I re-encounter Spicer's "No one listens to poetry," because that syntax is under such pressure that it either defies comprehension or becomes purely formal (it's the same thing), so that the truth-content of the poem eludes the reader. This is where, for me, lyric comes back into the equation: beauty or buzz can seduce the distracted reader into entering that gap between word and world—that vibrating force field unique to the poetry that dislocates speech and representation. And yet I'm cognizant of the danger that the field itself, its hum, can become mere sensation—that my default mode for responding to a poem, even a "difficult" poem, is aesthetic delectation. Thought comes later, and—I'll be honest—sometimes doesn't come at all. The poem can resist my intelligence wholly successfully, and I'll still enjoy it, as long as it stimulates me not to thought (hypostasis, noun-state) but to thinking (the only verb that connects being with becoming).

Scalapino's practice, like almost everything avant-garde, is a mode of collage, which emphasizes the disordering or de-hierarchizing of elements over the magpie bricolage of unlike elements. It's a bit like the difference between atonal music's dethronement of melody—which can sound like the untrained ear like an attack on music itself—and the DJ's mash-up that renders familiar sounds strange (what Danger Mouse did in The Grey Album) and turns unfamiliar unmusical sounds into something you can dance to (D.J. Spooky). It's a mode of what I call intensive collage—it breaks inward—as opposed to extensive collage. To put it another way, collage is a mode of deterritorialization, but whereas extensive collage in the mode of Pound and Olson is often didactic and reterritorializing, intensive collage at its purest maintains multiple possibilities as multiple, so that any strong interpretive move made by the reader toward "meaning" is to miss the point, which is to be in the thinking that makes the poem. Scalapino writes:

It means that anything occurring impinges on and alters everything else—equally effective in the sense of large and small are part of the context. There's no hierarchy (in existence), though it occurs socially created and created by animals, authority does not derive from it. The writing enables one to see that and be 'without' it. A poem can be a terrain where hierarchy can be undone or not occur (in the writing), but obviously the writing does not make it not occur in the world. So, its subject is also the relation of conceptual to phenomena, conceptual being an action also. Yet even proposing conceptual non-hierarchy frequently meets with great resistance (usually).

What has this got to do with the relation of poetry to events? Perhaps only that that relation is thinking, a mode of cognition that, as Heidegger suggests, is very close to the poetic, and fundamentally different from the discursive language that envelops "judicious study of discernible reality." It may be the only hope that people without power—subjects or subalterns of empire—have of anticipating, resisting, and reimagining the violent redescription of the world. Though it should go without saying that this imaginative and de-hierarchizing mode of thought is insufficient without actual political action, actual solidarity, actual resistance. But how can the latter take place without this work of the imagination?

Put another way: only poetry can counter the Big Lie of power. We've lived through a decade in which reasonable and intelligent and empirically acute people—God bless 'em—pointed out as strenuously and as often as possible that the emperor had no clothes. And it seems to have done almost no good at all. All we got were some scathingly accurate and politically ineffectual descriptions of a reality that the empire had already moved on from, just as Bush's Rasputin said.

It may seem that I'm falling into the trap of according an importance to poetry entirely disproportionate to its actual infinitesimal influence in the world. Maybe I am. But it's my hope that the poetry of collage, of deterritorialization, really is in spite of everything capable of becoming an avant-garde in the literal sense: the leading edge of discourse-formation, of new imaginative possibilities for the arrangements of words and—if only by analogy and allegory—social arrangements and structures.


And yet I can't content myself with the belief that it's enough that this stuff gets written and that the same people who write the stuff read it. I dream of a wider readership for poetry without compromise with the bugbear of accessibility. Some of the other writers and critics I referenced in my first paragraph have contributions to make to this possibility. I do think that if there were more and better poetry criticism out there it might build a bridge to the many highly literate people out there who read everything but poetry. Alan Davies calls for a rigor and candor in poetry criticism that is undoubtedly lacking at the moment (though I wonder if he's spent much time with The Constant Critic or the wonderfully in-depth reviews published by The Nation. Davies' essay evokes a 2009 discussion at Mayday, "Some Darker Bouquets," in which Kent Johnson and a host of interlocutors debate the role of the negative review in poetry. By far the best solution on offer, I think, is not Kent's proposal of anonymous reviews (who would write them?) but encouraging non-poets to take up the task; poetry needs the robust community of critics that nearly every other art form can claim. But this is a circular argument, for what will induce those non-poets to read poetry intensively and seriously enough to critique it? What will induce them to get some skin in the game?

The title of my post refers of course to one of my guilty pleasures: the eponymous prog-rock concept album released in 1972 by Jethro Tull. Written and performed with tongue firmly in Ian Anderson's cheek, the album features deliberately abstruse, pretentious, quasi-sensical lyrics that were one of my first introductions, as a teenager, to the living possibilities of poetic language. I have always been haunted by the title track, which manages to evoke both of the Lears (the King and Edward):

Really don't mind if you sit this one out.

My words but a whisper -- your deafness a SHOUT.

I may make you feel but I can't make you think.

Your sperm's in the gutter -- your love's in the sink.

So you ride yourselves over the fields and

you make all your animal deals and

your wise men don't know how it feels to be thick as a brick.

I feel this is as eloquent a statement as any of the dilemma of the artist who wants his audience to think, but whose means of doing so—the sensuality of materials like words and narratives and musical notes—are incommensurate with thinking. The energies of the "you" addressed by the singer are dismembered and sterile, and the discursive knowledge of "your wise men" cannot capture how it feels to be thick as a brick—to be in the gap between being and becoming, the gap of not-knowing. How it feels—because this thinking, this conceptual activity that collage writing demands of the reader, is a feeling. The trouble is, to most readers, it feels an awful lot like feeling stupid. Whereas those of us who have habituated ourselves to these forms dare to be stupid (to pull another déclassé musical reference out of my hat) and feel not-knowing as an exhilaration, an ecstasy that returns us, momentarily, to being.

Poetry must be in a desperate situation indeed if I'm turning to Jethro Tull, right? But my point is that people want to feel something when they read, and that poetic thinking is a feeling—is an aesthetic experience in its own right, akin to the sublime. One is in the presence of the ungraspable, your deepest imaginative powers—the Romantics called it Reason—stretched and exercised by the experience. The extensive poem—remnant epic—puts us in contact with the terror of connection—makes perceptible the logic of the world (of capital) that our media are designed to distract us from, without necessarily succumbing to the logic of paranoia and the conspiracy theory. The intensive poem, whose logic is fundamentally lyric, connects us with something more elusive; like Eliot's shred of platinum it catalyzies a reaction between body and soul, feeling and thinking, being and becoming.

And yeah, parts of that album are frigging sublime, and I stand by that.

* For a poetic reflection on this phenomenon see Rachel Zolf's new book Neighbour Procedure, the title of which, I learn from Vanessa Place's review, "refers to an entry technique deployed by Israeli soldiers in which Palestinians are forced to break the walls inside their neighbor's houses, allowing the soldiers to move laterally between houses." Among other things, this concept puts a new and chilling spin on the title of one of my favorite Kevin Davies' poems, Lateral Argument.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Cinematic Prose and Its Posthuman Other

In one week Lake Forest will hold its commencement and I'll take off my professor's hat for the summer. A few weeks later, in June, I will become a student again for one week at Naropa University's Summer Writing Program. Partly, I'm doing this for pedagogical purposes; it's been many years since I took part in a writing workshop and now that I teach them, I'd like to re-experience what it's like to participate in one. Mainly, it's to "come out" further as a poet who writes fiction, into a critical space that will, I hope, suitably problematize what fiction is and help me to understand just what it and I can do for each other.

I have hopes for this workshop's providing a doorway into the study of fiction, or at least of writing that includes the fictional, that will not simply reproduce the mainstream aesthetic. One of the writers I might study with is Thalia Field, quoted in my previous post, and she's come up with a useful bit of shorthand for that aesthetic that she calls "cinematic prose." At the same time I have no wish to reproduce the affectless postmodern collage aesthetic that I've encountered in my initial forays (though I do often find that work compelling, especially at its most abstract and Asperbergers-esque, as in the work of Lydia Davis or Tao Lin).

The other class I might take will be led by Laird Hunt; I love his novel The Impossibly for the way it plays with noir conventions while inventing an abstract narrative language that constantly deflects the reader from simple identification with its narrator. Though that narrator does happen to be another affectless, Aspergers-esque figure, there's a baroque quality to the lacunae in the thriller plot that he unfolds for us that suggests something more interesting is going on than postmodern minimalism. That and what little I've seen of Hunt's other fiction suggests an appetite for something more heightened--what I think of as the operatic, which is another alternative to the cinematic.

Why we must resort to analogies with performance genres to get at the new in fiction is another question that Field perhaps is best equipped to answer, since her own hard-to-classify writing blends aspects of the essay, the poem, fiction, and most significantly, theater. In one interview pertaining to the "lyric essay," she notes that if you read her work "solely from the point of view of the essay, you might find it lacking. In the same way if you approach it as a story, or certainly as a poem, you would find other things lacking." Yet I can attest that there's nothing minimal about Field's writing; she too is a practitioner of narrative baroquely Swiss-cheesed baroque by lacunae and digression.

In her Context interview (a periodical produced by the great Dalkey Archive Press), Field articulates a compelling defense of hybrid or cross-genre work, taking from John Cage’s “Lecture on Nothing” the idea that “language can refresh form (naming) by prioritizing nonconceptual freedom rather than ideas which precede perception.” She defends postmodern fragmentation as an ecological imperative: “Cut open to expose the human-centered narrative for its arrogance and ignorance, the complex impartiality of the world without cinematic point of view makes for disorienting, broken, beautiful frames.”

Notice how the word “frames” preserves some analogy to cinema and visual art, even as Field criticizes “cinematic point of view” for the way in which it reinforces the ideology of the rugged individualist that filmed narratives deploy. I am reminded of possibly my favorite of the five remakes of the 1967 short film The Perfect Human that Jørgen Leth directs under constraints imposed by Lars von Trier in The Five Obstructions: “The Perfect Human: Brussels.” This is the remake that Leth makes without actual constraints (or to put it another way, without von Trier’s malicious yet useful mode of collaboration), as punishment for having broken the rules in the previous version, “The Perfect Human: Bombay.” It’s an elliptical noir that deploys certain tropes of the thriller—a mysterious man on a mysterious mission, an equally mysterious and beautiful “woman,” hotels, rendezvous, evening dress, sex—while eliding and eluding the thriller plot. Its most salient feature for this discussion is the voice-over narration, in which an unseen man speculates about the film’s hero, “the perfect man.” “Who is he? I would like to know something more about him. I have seen him smoke a cigarette. Does he think about fucking?” These questions focus the viewer’s attention onto the cinematic tropism unfolding before his eyes: it is enough for a camera to follow a man through city streets and into a lobby where he asks the clerk if he has any messages for us to identify with and invest in his singularity, his protagonism (try this even more unwieldy coinage: protagon-organism). The literary device of the voice-over (which any film student will tell you is a sign of weakness, a crutch that breaks faith with the codes of visual storytelling) breaks the very “perfection” that the film, qua film, pursues.

If film can transgress its own form in pursuit of truth by incorporating the literary, Field seems to suggest that literature must dissociate itself from the cinematic if it is to break from its compulsive anthropocentrism and anthropomorphism. “Cinematic prose contains consistent scale, in space and time, and the human figure, whether in close-up or establishing shot, predominates. This aesthetic holds because ultimately we don’t spend a lot of time in the awareness of our world without ourselves as tragic heroes of it.” Instead, she suggests that "Revising our obsession with domestic psychosymbolic tragedies (set on the literary equivalent of Hollywood “soundstages”) could shake the narrow focus and force us to listen differently" to "paradoxical, poly-vocal, cacophonous" stories.

To keep this in a literary frame, you could say that Field advocates a poetics of heteroglossia over monoglossia, and that what takes her beyond Bakhtin is her desire to incorporate not merely non-literary elements and voices into her writing, but also the nonhuman. A heteroglossia of the posthuman exceeds, I think, the bounds of any cinema unless that cinema abandons narrative or even representation (think of Stan Brakhage). A radical materialism, it would seek to embody discourse (making social production discernible and available to critique), and discover discourse in the body (human bodies, animal bodies). It's no wonder that Field's second book of unclassifiable but visually poetic pieces is titled Incarnate: Story Material.

The "cinematic prose" analogy fascinates me because my own fictional investigation began with wondering what it was, exactly, that a prose fiction could do that wasn't at this stage in history a belated form of cinema. My protagonist, or one of them, is a deliberately flat, "perfect" character, very much an object for the imaginary omniscient camera to track through the plot. I am not myself ready to abandon the realm of domestic psychosymbolic tragedy; I hope rather than suppressing that element to heighten it, pushing again toward the operatic, which I would define as a mode that explores opportunities for heightened feeling, for excesses of feeling to match the excesses of language that attract me. For I am simply not a minimalist (nor am I a Buddhist practitioner of non-attachment, as Field is). As much as I admire Beckett, I imprinted early on Joyce, lovely tenor, who certainly remains inexhaustibly "paradoxical, poly-vocal, cacophonous."

It seems then, as ever, I am caught somewhere in the muddy middle between romanticism and materialism, even in my fiction writing; skeptical of humanism but not ready to embrace my inner cyborg either. Perhaps the best I can hope for is that my ambivalence will defend me from received wisdom of whatever stripe. In the meantime I'd like to borrow Field's motto, "Hello, friendly edge!" Whether or not I take her workshop, I feel she's already taught me quite a bit.

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